The Maryland Department of Education is about to make a very big mistake. Under the Education and Secondary Education Act (better known as No Child Left Behind), low-income families whose children attend low-performing schools are eligible to receive supplemental educational services outside of the regular school day. These services include after school tutorial services.

The Supplemental Educational Services Program is federally funded through Title I. Tutorial services can be provided by private companies that are preferred providers approved by the MSDE. In order to be approved by the state, a provider must demonstrate certain criteria, including its record of effectiveness in increasing student achievement. Unfortunately, local school districts do not like the program, because it takes a portion of the federal money districts receive and gives it to parents who want to access free tutoring for their children.

Many Marylanders have choices when it comes to their children's academic opportunities. Many parents have the option of enrolling their child in different types of schools, including private schools and home schooling. There is the other option of moving to high-performing public school districts. These parents also have the option of paying for other educational services, such as tutoring, to reinforce or correct academic issues.

But families without the means or resources to provide such academic support are left to the devices of a low-performing school, without meaningful supplementary educational services. As a result, the "achievement gap" continues unabated, as evidenced on the standardized test scores of black and Latino students, compared to their white and Asian peers. The Supplemental Educational Services program allows parents in these communities — for the first time in history — access to the kinds of education resources wealthier citizens have long enjoyed.

Unfortunately, the MSDE has just initiated efforts to end the Supplemental Educational Services program. This will be devastating to families and students who can least afford it. In making this decision, the department made no effort to reach out to the thousands of families using the program.

In 2009-2010, there were 8,208 Maryland students receiving these services. That number has increased each year over the last three. Most of those families are from poor, predominantly African-American communities in Baltimore and Prince George's Counties. Consider how empowering this program is to the thousands of families it serves.

The sad fact is that the MSDE doesn't like allowing federal money to go to private professional tutoring organizations. And so it is ready to scrap the parental choice that these families have accessed in an effort to help their children succeed.

The Supplemental Educational Services program is not perfect. The state and school districts, for example, can do a better job of screening tutoring providers and making sure that there is a demonstrated academic achievement. That is why legislation has been introduced in the state Senate and House of Delegates calling on the MSDE to preserve the Supplemental Educational Services program and parental choice.

By ending the this program, MSDE is responding to school districts that want to keep federal Title I funds in-house. Who it should be listening to are the parents and students who want to keep the empowering option of the Supplemental Educational Services program.

Catherine Pugh represents District 40 in the Maryland Senate. Her email is catherine.pugh@senate.state.md.us. Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. represents District 44 in the Maryland House of Delegates. His email is keiffer.mitchell@house.state.md.us.